14 min read
“What does that mean?” asks legendary hip-hop/R&B producer and So So Def Recordings founder and owner — and dedicated vegan — Jermaine Dupri when pressed about whether he sees himself of late as a serial entrepreneur. After all, he observes, “I’ve been in that space since day one.”
And without a doubt, Dupri has been a self-starting machine for the better part of three decades, dating back to discovering ’90s teen hip-hop phenoms Kriss Kross, launching acts like Bow Wow and Usher into the next strata of stardom and helping Mariah Carey cross over into urban-radio credibility. But the 47-year-old hitmaker and mogul has been largely moving through the tech and startup spaces over the past decade-plus, launching his own social media network, Global 14, participating in conferences on innovative disruption and — as of last month — officially joining plant-based-lifestyle platform The Beet (which launched with support from incubator 25Madison) as creative advisor.
Lucy Danziger, The Beet’s editorial director, realized immediately what Dupri brought to the table. “Jermaine has a unique perspective as someone who’s been vegan for 15 years,” Danziger shares. “He basically has said to me, ‘When I went vegan, there was not a resource like The Beet, and there were no Impossible Burgers.’ He has had to create workarounds and figure it out, and he has such a vast wealth of knowledge.”
And for Dupri, partnering with Danziger represented an opportunity to help claim some widespread authority in a lifestyle space he’s long preached the virtues of among friends and family. But it was also a chance to bring veganism out of the shadows as being both commercially and culturally viable.
Connecting by phone from his Atlanta home, Dupri chatted at length with us about his personal entrepreneurial path, choosing projects that home in on long-underserved consumer needs and how The Beet will help ensure that he — and not Jay-Z and Beyoncé — ought to be recognized as hip-hop’s original vegan vanguard.
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When would you say you started branching out entrepreneurially beyond the music business?
I would say the start of that came from back in 2005, because that’s when I started Global 14 and had this weird idea that I could create my own social network. I felt like if you have 250,000 followers, and those 250,000 people are highly engaged in what you’re talking about, it made me realize I could create my own space for those people that weren’t part of this Twitter world. I didn’t have the money to actually create a social network the way that other people had done it. I was actually more or less leaning on the fact that I had the subscribers, and it was tougher than I thought it was going to be.
But that’s when I basically when I started, I guess you could say, my serial entrepreneurship — just going down that road of things I feel like are next to pop or next to be on that bubble.
If it was hard to break through social media despite your success in the music business, what was the key factor in pushing ahead?
Since I’m a record company owner first, when you’re in the record business, you find a way. Mostly you lean on talent, right? Social media, to me, is not built on talent. What social media is built on is engagement, and what I was able to do was show the engagement of my site to those I kept introducing it to. I found a partner in the site to help write code so that we could get the site to a place where we could continue to engage and it wouldn’t be jammed up. I was spending my own money to actually develop this site, and the thing that kept me going is the community I was building. I felt like Twitter wasn’t designed for the conversation that I wanted to have, and this was way before Instagram came to life. I saw something that I wanted to do wasn’t in the marketplace. And that’s the same thing that happened with The Beet. In my travels and my journey of being vegan, no one was taking the time to show that they care the way I feel they should. No one’s taking the time to show us vegans where the best restaurants to eat in every city are. No one’s taken the time to talk to non-vegans — introduce it to them in a way where they understand why they should be vegan, or if they don’t want to be, why they should at least try it. I’m always looking for the thing that doesn’t exist, and that’s what I put in my music and my moves as an entrepreneur.
Is the takeaway there to never just assume somebody’s already done the thing you think is a great idea?
Yeah. And to me, that’s partially why we have a few billionaires, [not] a lot of billionaires. A lot of people get an idea, and they don’t follow through with it because they believe it’s already done. I’m a guy who honestly knows that a lot of the things that I think about in my head don’t exist, and then I am also not just the owner, I’m the client — like the Hair Club for Men. [Laughs.] I’m vegan, so I know what I wake up every day trying to find. I know for sure that there was nothing in the marketplace like [The Beet]. That’s what made me do this.
Is being involved in The Beet partly to offer proof of concept for other people with a similar notion about serving the vegan-lifestyle market?
No, because what I’m trying to always do is just make sure that my voice is heard in an area that I want it to be heard in. And a lot of times you being first is not successful. Like when Jay-Z and Beyonce became vegan, right. [Editors Note: Though now regarded as vegan trailblazers, the couple are not technically adherents to the lifestyle.] I have been telling them to go vegan. Me and Jay-Z would have conversations about this so many times. I would go to 40/40 Club, his restaurant, and ask him over and over again: “When are you going to put something vegan on the menu?” And he would be like, “Just have a burger today,” you know? It was funny once I saw they started their vegan journey. I never like told them, “You guys should become vegan.” And, they would joke with me like, “How are you vegan? Black people ain’t vegan.” So when I saw them become vegan and I saw the press that was behind it, it was an “oh shit” moment for me. Like, wait a minute, I’m the guy that’s been saying this; you guys are paying attention to the wrong people.
So ultimately, what I started thinking about when it comes to veganism is I don’t need to sit around and wait for others to decide if they’re going to talk to Jermaine Dupri about veganism. Jermaine Dupri has to make his move and show people his dedication to veganism, regardless of it being successful. With [The Beet], I just decided that it’s time for me to make my stance on how I feel about my lifestyle. I feel like it’s going to be successful because I can just feel the momentum going that direction, but at the same time that wasn’t a defining factor in me doing this.
As far as your friends kidding with you about being Black and vegan, is part of being involved with The Beet to bust those stereotypes?
This was back in 2007, 2008 when these little jokes were going on. Then fast forward to 2020. I’m meeting so many more brothers and sisters of color that are cooking vegan. I’m from the South, so people don’t even people think about the South and being vegan. They think about eating ribs and macaroni and cheese and collard greens and all of this, everything that you could possibly cook and eat. But ultimately, yeah, the urban community has definitely changed and is moving in a much more vegan direction, especially here in Atlanta. Like I said, it was time for someone to pull that curtain back and show that. That’s what I plan to do with The Beet: show people the diversity and educate people as much as possible.
Investors looking for up and coming market trends should probably be paying attention as well.
Yeah, cause the thing about veganism is that it definitely teaches you and it definitely will correct your body. Bow Wow jokes with me when I’m eating vegan. He’s like, “Yeah, you’re going to be hungry in the next hour.” But you’re supposed to be hungry in the next hour. That’s how we’re supposed to eat in real life, and that’s something that people that don’t realize.
As you’ve moved through all these different industries of late, is there anyone you’ve encountered who helped you have a bit of a light bulb moment about staying nimble in your pursuits?
No, not really. It’s a gut thing. When I started Global 14, I started telling people that the days of a desk CEO are over. And I was saying this in 2007. I’m the definition of non-desk. In 2020 and moving forward, if you’re a CEO of a company, you’ve gotta be on the bottom floor. You’ve got to see what’s going on. You’ve gotta test the product, get out here and see how people are engaged in what’s going on. My mentality is on-the-ground CEO, move-around CEO, so you’re the first person that brings it back to everybody else, as opposed to having somebody else bring things to the CEO. You’ll hear about it from me if you work for me.
But at some point earlier on in your life and career, there had to be someone who served as a template for how you wanted to approach things.
Herby “Luv Bug” [Azor], who produced Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ‘n Play. He had his own company, and he had groups, and that’s the model that I actually was looking at when I first got started. I never had a conversation with him. I just saw what he was doing. He was from New York and doing it, and I looked at my city and said, “Who’s doing this in Atlanta?” And once I saw no one was, that’s the lane that I decided to go in. At 16, I had the same mentality.
You father, Michael Maldin, is a music-industry pioneer in is own right. What did you absorb from observing him growing up?
What I learned from my father is the community aspect of it, having a relationship with multiple people and not just boxing yourself in with your own crew. That was what gave me the energy to want to work with a Mariah Carey, to work with an Usher, to want to work with people that I didn’t sign. All producers are supposed to do that, but I had that down pat a little bit more than others because it’s instilled in me from my father.
How important is it to have examples around you of what not to do?
Yeah, 100 percent. You should definitely have role models that have done things that you love, but then they did it wrong, so that you move forward and understand when that moment comes. It’s almost like Slumdog Millionaire: When that moment comes, you know exactly what to say and what not to do. And I hope people do the same thing for me. I have a lot of flaws. I have a lot of moments in my life that I didn’t take advantage of, and I’m sure somebody’s watching me saying, “JD didn’t do this when he should have, and when I get that opportunity, I’m not going to do that.” That’s what I’m here for, and that’s what other people have been like for me. When I met Quincy Jones, I told him that he mentored me from a distance.
Do you look for kindred spirits in business now the way you were drawn repeatedly to artists like Mariah Carey or Usher?
What I liked about [The Beet] was that they were trying to lead a space that is underserved, as well as they didn’t have a person like Jermaine Dupri. My vegan energy is a different energy. I’m not a hippie; I’m not that guy. I want to make these [vegan] spaces hidden in these little places feel like they can come out, like it’s OK to have a vegan restaurant on Peachtree Street. Here in Atlanta, a lot of the vegan restaurants that I go to are tucked away in places that, if I wasn’t vegan, I would never find. I encourage these people: “Come on out. There’s an audience out here for you.” I hope to one day have a vegan restaurant in [Atlanta’s] Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Now somebody else might do it cause they hear me talking about it. [Laughs.] But I feel like it’s time for a vegan restaurant to be in all major airports. It’s past due.
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While we’re looking to the future, Is there another lifestyle space that you feel is ripe to be pulled out of the shadows?
Interesting question. I would definitely say yes, hypothetically. I don’t have one in my mind that I’m thinking of, but I would definitely say yes because there always is. That’s the thing about the world we live in., I tell people all the time: Once you get to the top, or whatever people think is the top, you realize that the top is really no different than the bottom. And actually, it’s more empty at the top than it is at the bottom, cause there ain’t a lot of stuff at the top once you get there. Take Beats by Dre. I always felt we had enough headphones. I never thought one time, I should make some headphones. But the world knows and trusts the ear of Dr. Dre. I don’t know who created Bose; I don’t know who the maker of Panasonic is. And to be frank, whoever made them probably doesn’t understand the way I like to listen to my music. So I’m going to get the headphones that are made by the guy that I know listens to the same music that I listen to. That example in itself is something that I’m sure people have overlooked. So if you start looking at anything, you’ve got to pay attention to it from that perspective. If you use stuff, you’re going to go along with somebody that you trust. That’s what I’m saying about me and The Beet. When people see me on there, and then they also see me in the restaurant they’re eating at, why wouldn’t they listen to what I’m saying?